There aren’t a huge number of Welsh bands that have achieved worldwide superstardom. But if I had to place a bet on any active UK band, I would put my money on the Joy Formidable.
The band is fronted by a woman, the blonde, beautiful, and irrepressible Ritzy Bryan, and normally even I would be dubious of a woman out front of a indie rock group, but there’s something different here. The brilliant rhythm section of Rhydian Dafydd (bass / vocals) and Matt Thomas (drums) bangs on with equal authority to Bryan’s banging guitar and lead vocals. In May 2010, the trio released an EP in America called A Balloon Called Moaning, eight songs showcasing the band’s sound, mixing up pop, punk, grunge, and rock in an engaging way. This week, the Joy Formidable release their debut album in America called The Big Roar, and this is the kind of album that should make you take notice of this band.
At the start of “The Everchanging Changing Spectrum of a Lie,” the first song on the album, you can hear the sound of balloons being blown up and then being popped, no doubt a nod to their previous EP’s title. When Bryan asks emphatically, “can’t you see I’m good?” you can feel the lyric dripping with her emotion. It’s rare that I come across a female vocalist whose singing sentiment I can relate to; with Ritzy Bryan, you know this is a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve, for our benefit. The aforementioned banging guitars usher in and fill in around the words of “A Heavy Abacus.” The strangely titled “Llaw = Wall” allows Dafydd to take lead vocal duties; the first half of the song is as gentle as a lullaby before the guitars return to snap you back into the reality that is a Joy Formidable album.
This debut album smartly features some of the strongest songs from A Balloon Called Moaning. “Austere” features a thudding, relentless bass line from Dafydd and Bryan’s evocative lyrics. It’s one thing to just bash the hell out of your instruments, but this trio from North Wales seems to have figured out the formula of appropriately balancing guitars and drums to create a compelling soundscape to pair with dreamy lyrics. “Whirring” has Thomas’s military-style drumming, Bryan’s vocals spat out in a similarly staccato fashion. She repeats, “all these things about me you never can tell / you make me sleep so badly, invisible friend.” My guess is that the song is about how something haunts you, like a secret you can’t tell anyone else and how it’s eating you up because you can’t be honest with yourself, let alone other people. Whether your secret is big or small, I think everyone can relate to this.
Then there are the less successful numbers in this collection of 12 songs. “I Don’t Want to See You Like This”; I find the nearly spoken lyrics dry and not at the same high quality of the backing instrumentation. “Maruyama” is a Japanese-flavored dream pop track that doesn’t go anywhere interesting. The guitars and drums fight with Bryan’s voice for authority in “Buoy” and unfortunately the unconvincing instrumentation wins out.
But I can overlook these because there are some real gems in here. “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade,” also borrowed from A Balloon Called Moaning, closes The Big Roar in fine fashion: the rhythm is hypnotic, and I love the way Bryan’s voice is soft and angelic despite the crashing guitars around her. It’s inspirational, yet also sad; truth be told, it makes me cry every time. I read it as someone saying goodbye to a lover: what comes after you’ve accepted that the relationship is over is the healing of your own heart, the recognition that brighter days ahead, and the cognizance that you can look to that other person not with hate or regret, but with the acknowledgment and remembrance of something wonderful that you once shared with that person. Which is what I think speaks to me most about the Joy Formidable: somehow they’ve managed to write compelling rock songs that allow you, the listener, to headbang to heavy but complex guitar rhythms, yet have strong lyrical, emotional content. So it shouldn’t be surprising that frontwoman Bryan has named the Smiths as an important musical influence. Get this album, you won’t be disappointed.
The Big Roar by the Joy Formidable is available now from Atlantic Records. Catch the band on their huge tour in North America in March and April, including appearances this week at South by Southwest and next month at Coachella. Support for the tour will be from Mona and the Lonely Forest.
01. The Ever Changing Spectrum of a Lie
02. The Magnifying Glass
03. I Don’t Want to See You Like This
05. A Heavy Abacus
10. Llaw = Wall
11. Chapter 2
12. The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade
Mar 17 – Parish / Austin
Mar 17 – Mellow Johnny’s / Austin
Mar 18 – Waterloo Records (in store) / Austin
Mar 18 – Buffalo Billiards / Austin
Mar 19 – Brush Square Park / Austin
Mar 19 – La Zona Rosa / Austin
Mar 22 – Earl / Atlanta
Mar 24 – Coffeehouse @ Duke University / Durham, NC
Mar 25 – Black Cat / Washington, DC
Mar 26 – Valentine’s / Albany
Mar 28 – Met / Providence
Mar 29 – Brighton Music Hall / Allston, MA
Mar 30 – Johnny Brenda’s / Philadelphia
Mar 31 – Terrace Club @ Princeton University / Princeton, NJ
Apr 01 – Abbey / Harrisburg
Apr 02 – Horseshoe Tavern / Toronto
Apr 04 – Basement / Columbus
Apr 05 – Lincoln Hall / Chicago
Apr 06 – 7th Street Entry / Minneapolis
Apr 08 – Larimer Lounge / Denver
Apr 09 – Kilby Court / Salt Lake City
Apr 11 – Mississippi Studios / Portland
Apr 12 – Crocodile / Seattle
Apr 14 – Bottom of the Hill / San Francisco
Apr 16 – Coachella / Indio, CA
Apr 19 – Rhythm Room / Phoenix
Apr 20 – Launchpad / Albuquerque
Apr 22 – Luminary Arts Center / St. Louis
Apr 23 – Riot Room / Kansas City
Apr 26 – Grog Shop / Cleveland
Apr 27 – Smiling Moose / Pittsburgh
Apr 29 – Webster Hall / New York City